Dreaming of a White Christmas: ‘Race,’ Christmas, and Children’s Literature

It’s December, and my thoughts turn to . . . well, my thoughts turn to the end of term and not having to grade another undergraduate essay for a while. But the commercial world is thinking about Christmas, and many in the political world are wondering what 2017 will bring after the surprises of 2016. A report on NPR’s “Morning Edition” yesterday reflected this latter focus; reporter Frank Langfitt was in the northeastern England town of Sunderland, quite close to where I spent my sabbatical last year, trying to find out why people voted for Brexit. Langfitt commented, “what I found really interesting is people kept saying immigration. And immigration, I think, is a code word, frankly – and I had this long conversation with a bunch of guys basically in a pub working-class folk – for white identity politics, which we’ve been hearing a lot about in the United States. People feel that England is changing, that it’s not the same culture that it’s been” (http://www.npr.org/2016/12/08/504792243/the-challenges-facing-globalization); the report goes on to suggest that white working-class people don’t like immigrants because they don’t assimilate into the “culture”. The mainstream media, including the BBC and NPR, has received some criticism for their reporting of the apparently monolithic viewpoint of the white working-class, and this report is no exception, going onto compare British white working-class with American white working-class as well as going so far to suggest that a rise in suicide rates among “the” white working-class is connected with globalization (which is not, of course, the same as immigration, but never mind).


The Mall of America’s first Black Santa is also a veteran of the US Army . . . but racists complain that anything other than a white Santa usurps their “culture”.

But I want to return to this notion of “culture” and change, because if ever there is a period in the calendar year when white culture is dominant, it’s Christmastime. In Britain and the US, resistance to redefining Christmas as a multiracial or multicultural holiday is high. In the US, the Mall of America appointed its first African-American Santa Claus—and was inundated with racial abuse because of it that surprised even Fox News (http://www.foxnews.com/travel/2016/12/05/backlash-ensues-after-mall-america-hires-first-ever-african-american-santa.html). In the UK, some people complained that department store John Lewis had used a Black British family in their Christmas advertisement (https://politicalscrapbook.net/2016/12/racists-are-complaining-to-john-lewis-about-their-christmas-ad-because-it-features-a-black-family/). These stories are troubling, but it would be possible to argue that they are isolated incidents (or isolated racists)—if it weren’t for other cultural markers that suggest otherwise. One way of measuring the whiteness of Christmas in American or British “culture” is in the holiday section of the children’s bookstore. I went this year and looked at two: the big chain bookstore in the strip mall, and the independent bookstore within walking distance of my house. One glance at the chain bookstore display told me that white people had nothing to fear from other cultures taking over; 95% or more of the book covers had only white people or animals on the cover (perhaps we should send all the animals back where they came from—or at least send the Whos back to Whoville).


It looks as though the brown child is in the lead . . .

There was one book in the “Bargain” section that had a single brown face, a mass-market board book edition of the song Over the River and through the Woods. Although prominent on the cover illustration, the African-American (?) child’s presence was actually considerably diminished in the inside illustrations. From one of three, the child became one of six, all the rest of whom were white; additionally, the brown child’s face or body is almost always obscured by something (usually a white child). The children travel the eponymous journey to grandmother’s house, where they are welcomed by two white grandparents. Since there are no parents present in the story, the reader is left to ponder the place of the brown child—a friend? a grandchild whose parents are of different races? or just a cynical marketing ploy?


. . . but in the inside pictures, the child is almost always obscured.

The full-price children’s holiday section in the chain bookstore was almost exclusively white, both on the cover and in the texts/illustrations inside the books (I did check). One exception—although just based on the cover, I had to look twice—was James Mayhew’s Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker (2012). Perhaps I had to look twice because, according to the Ella Bella website, the books are “Illustrated in a charming vintage style, inspired by screen printed books of the ’40s and ’50s, Ella Bella Ballerina’s adventures are full of colour and fun.Illustrated in a charming vintage style, inspired by screen printed books of the ‘40s and ‘50s” (http://www.jamesmayhew.co.uk/books/ella-bella).


The cover of Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker by James Mayhew.

“Vintage” is often—like Frank Langfitt says of “immigration”—a racially-coded word when it comes to American and British children’s books, but not in Mayhew’s case. Ella Bella is part of a racially-mixed ballet class who are learning about Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet (the book is part of a series that includes books about “Swan Lake,” “Cinderella” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as well). Ella Bella herself might be of Asian descent, although the lack of any cultural context (or, again, parents) makes it difficult to tell (I haven’t seen the other books except for the covers).


Ella Bella’s ballet class.

Mayhew’s book almost normalizes the idea of a multiracial Christmas ballet. I say “almost” because—unlike other ballets, where racial background is unspecified (usually because presumed white), “Nutcracker” has as part of its second act (“The Land of Sweets”) exotic, racialized character dances. Mayhew depicts the Spanish chocolate, the Chinese tea, and the Arabian coffee dancers as distinctly not-white, with darker and more exaggerated racial features than those found in the ballet class girls, bringing their wares to a very white, very blonde Clara. “Isn’t this the best Christmas party ever?” Clara asks Ella Bella, who readily agrees: the vision of a white-dominated Christmas remains intact.


Like pictures of the three kings bringing gifts to the blonde baby in the manger, Mayhew’s exotic foreigners bring gifts to blonde Clara. Isn’t this the best Christmas party ever?

I had hoped to find something different at the independent bookstore, but—although they are normally quite wide-ranging in their children’s section—their holiday section contained the same sorts of books as the chain bookstore, perhaps with a higher percentage (or maybe just more obvious display) of Hanukah books. All the humans on all the holiday book covers (Christmas or Hanukah) were white. It could have been just that there was a rush on books with other kinds of characters (I can live in hope), but I think it might be time to ask both the chain and the independent bookstores to consider a kind of Christmas other than a white one.  Because having children’s books that represent all our children is everyone’s responsibility.

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